(More than…) Two Years in Torino

"Le cose belle sono lente." –Pane e Tulipani

Category: learning

Quick illustration update

Now that the wedding is over, it’s fall, and I’ve got somewhat of a routine going, I thought I’d do a quick illustration update.

I have crammed down so much subject matter during the past, first year of self-instruction that it sometimes seems like I’ve got some serious artistic indigestion. Character design, Photoshop, studying favorite illustrators, marketing, perspective and environment, composition, textures and warp tools, endless experimentations with traditional and digital media, repeat. When I consider that this time last year I hardly knew what a Photoshop layer was, I can see progress. Still, it’s an effort not to count the years it’s likely to take to build a portfolio, compare them to the years I have left to develop a career, and suddenly feel quite sober about it. Then enthusiasm kicks back in and I get back to work.

The little painting above is sort of half-baked (that horizon line!), but I am posting it because it gives some idea where I am right now. I’m trying to keep the technique simple, and to that end I’m mostly just painting one character, in digital watercolor. The text was pure stream-of-consciousness because I wanted to consider how it should look on the page. And although I’ve got state-of-the-art digital watercolor brushes from Kyle Brush (as of this week free with a Photoshop CC subscription, but only available with a subscription), there is still an aspect of watercolor that really just begs for the serendipity of traditional media.

Where is all this going? I still don’t know. But at least it’s going.


Illustration resources

This is the post I was going to write before I got sidetracked with Thanksgiving. Though Two Years in Torino is primarily about life as an American in Italy, I think it’s only natural that as I live in Torino longer and longer (way beyond two years, it looks like), not all of my life will be consciously expat. As such, most of these illustration resources are American, but if you’re just itching for some bureaucratic irony and humor from the bel paese, I have one more Accademia Albertina update to publish soon. Also, some day, I hope that my illustration interest and my interest in things Italian will truly intersect.

But for now I have a lot of technical information about art to digest, quickly, and so this year I am taking the efficient, if somewhat lonely route of art self-study online. Online schools seem to be a pronounced trend in the US, and while I might not recommend online study for an 18-year-old getting his or her first degree, as a middle-aged expat self-study has a lot to offer: for starters, convenience of time and place, choice of specialized syllabi, and prices that allow for experimentation. (Note: the link, which actually argues that not even young people should go to art school, leads to yet more online resources.)

I’m not even sure how I first found all these schools and resources that I am about to list (I think I may have begun with Will Terry’s channel on YouTube), but I will say that once you discover a couple of these artists, they tend to lead to one another in a serendipitous rabbit trail. Most of these artists are entrepreneurial in outlook, and therefore they are open to other streams of income than book illustration. For instance, Will has branched out from children’s book illustration to Comi-cons (comics conventions), and has just published a book of his own fan art.

Another thing these artists seem to have in common is an acquaintance with animated film studios. They may not all have worked for one, but the style of modern animation has at the very least contributed to their visual vocabulary. I say this because digital animation is more of a recent discovery for me, and it wasn’t until I saw such films as Up!, Brave and Big Hero Six that I was truly convinced of the potential of digital animation, particularly the lighting. (I watch a lot of animated films during those long flights to the US.)

When I got interested in children’s book illustration again, Comic-cons and Disney films were not exactly what I had in mind, and yet I do think it’s important to understand the trends. I can take in bits of this knowledge and inform my own art.

And lastly, I appreciate that all of these artists have been willing to share some of what they have learned. They do not operate under a scarcity mentality. Instead they assume that the more knowledge is available, the more new opportunities for artists will open up. More art for everyone, more jobs for artists!

So, here’s my list of resources:

First of all, Photoshop is the industry standard software for illustrators. (Ironically, Adobe Illustrator is more for logo design and other projects that require a vector format.) I found a Photoshop offer that allowed me to get just Photoshop and Lightroom (English version) for about $10/month. I don’t know how long it will be available, but even if you are the most traditional of artists, your illustration work has to be camera ready, and Photoshop offers editing tools. How far you take your editing, and their painting tools, is up to you.

Also, although for now I work on a small Wacom Intuos tablet, I want to eventually buy a Wacom Cintiq, which allows you to draw directly on the screen. Both of these devices plug into a regular computer and use a stylus, but since the Intuos requires you to look at a screen while drawing on a separate tablet, it produces certain hand/eye coordination problems that, although they do improve with practice, never quite go away. I spent 50 years developing my drawing hand, and a Cintiq would allow me to fully preserve it in digital form. One reason for my delay in buying a Cintiq, by the way, is that I am waiting to see if an updated version of the 22″ model is released soon.

Now that I’ve listed the materials needed, there is the matter of developing the specialized skills required to use them well. Though I only discovered it somewhat recently, there is at least one excellent, free site that will walk you through the basics of digital painting in Photoshop as well as the fundamentals of drawing and painting. Let’s face it, Photoshop is an overwhelming program when you first encounter it, and you can waste hours trying to resolve seemingly minuscule problems. Matt Kohr’s Ctrl + Paint is clear, concise, and while he doesn’t always still have the practice downloads mentioned in his videos (some videos are several years old and have been moved to the site from elsewhere), you can usually take a screenshot (cmd + shift + 3 on a Mac) and make one yourself. Ctrl + Paint is a great first stop. He also offers paid content, which I haven’t tried yet. And just a note: I usually use Safari, but I find his site works better on Firefox.

My paid instruction source of the moment is SVS Learn.com. The classes seem to be available every so often as real time courses with instructor feedback, and thereafter are preserved for download or streaming. The main instructors are Will Terry and Jake Parker (founder of Inktober). Will and Jake give digital instruction, but never emphasize digital tricks over fundamentals. In fact, most of their courses are just as helpful for traditional media. Their specialty is children’s books, and to some degree, comics and graphic novels. They and other artists present courses on such topics as Painting Color and Light, Developing Interesting Character Designs, Perspective, How to Make Money in Illustration, and many others. I currently have a streaming subscription for $15/month that allows me to watch anything on the site and download the workbooks and other digital aids that accompany the courses. I really have learned a lot. And another nice thing about their site is that they allow you to leave and come back with no hassle (haven’t tried it yet, but that’s what it says on the site). They seem to understand that artists are struggling enough just to stay afloat, so they let you pick and choose what you need.

Branching out from SVS, I have also discovered such sites as Noah Bradley’s Art Camp and Chris Oatley’s Oatley Academy. Yet another paid online art education site is Schoolism. I haven’t joined any of those yet, but they do look like they might be promising. If anyone has experience that they would like to share, or knows other sites of similar quality, I would love to hear from you.

And what 21st century artist’s resource list would be complete without Pinterest? Artists use all the social media sites–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr being some of the more common ones–but the lure of Pinterest is the ability to make your own collections of other artists’ work and reference material, not just your own. When you’re starting out, Pinterest can be a helpful way to organize all the different sources of inspiration you want to keep track of. My account goes through periodic growth spurts and has now exploded to over 1000 pins. Oops!

For inspiration and general knowledge about the industry, I have enjoyed not only Will’s and Jake’s YouTube channels, but also Chris Oatley’s Artcast. Now that I am home alone a lot, I often listen to You Tube or podcasts while I do housework. Some of them are art-related and some have nothing to do with art, but that’s another blog post.

And finally, I have found some rather fun animation resources on TED and even Khan Academy.


My illustration adventure has only just started, and yet I’m really itching to get to the point where I can produce something that reflects not just technical art skills, but a mature vision. I think this may be a typical problem with starting a career in midlife. When you’re young, you have tons of energy and learn easily, but little life experience. At my age, you know your own interests and you have tons of experience you want to get out on paper or screen, but need to get your skills caught up quickly. I think a combination of humble and agile mind, and yet confidence about what you are trying to do, are optimal. But most of all, this job requires practice. So that’s what I am going to do now. Hope this helps someone, and thanks for reading!

Signs of life in Italy

In keeping with my accountability posts, I’m checking in today to do a brief report.

I’m happily busy, motivated, and working on my art. I’m involved with family, housekeeping and volunteering as usual, but I’m also learning to paint in Photoshop, which is like opening up an entire bag of caramels and chewing furiously. The learning curve is straight up. So I don’t have much to show for it yet.

So, in the meantime, I offer these small (and one not so small) signs of life in Italy:

Top: The world’s largest elliptical dome, canvas for an extraordinarily Baroque fresco complete with wooden extensions of figures into the cupola, at Vicoforte. Bottom left: The sanctuary at Vicoforte as seen from above amidst the Alban hills (home of the white truffle and Barolo). Both of these photos are from a volunteer day trip with 85 soup kitchen guests–always entertaining!. Bottom center: Chancellery cursive using a medieval reed pen, from Thursday’s calligraphy lesson. Bottom right: today’s lunch, ribollita. Yes, I know, it’s Tuscan and not Piedmontese, but I like to make it whenever I find black kale (I actually forgot what you call this kind of kale in English).

And then there was Wednesday, in which I turned a year older and we had a dramatic election.

Stay tuned! More news soon.


New ideas


One of today’s exercises, on old fashioned pencil and paper. What is going on with this fox’s other leg, anyway? And why can’t I get this photo to load at full resolution? If I thought too hard about these things, I’d never post it, so I won’t!

As perfectionism is a killjoy, I thought I’d post a half-baked update before I figure out how much I don’t know.

I have been looking for a new professional focus for about two years now, but the process is slow, and as usual, it is complicated by the fact that I live outside the only country where I understand how things work. But last year I decided that if I were ever to do art professionally again, it would be smarter to do it digitally. Italian shipping, insurance, bureaucracy and customs are all part of the short answer as to why.

And then last year someone approached me with the idea of illustrating a book. That didn’t work out, but the idea stuck. I had entered college with the idea of illustrating children’s books. I quickly switched to drawing and painting, but that was useful too and by now most of the techniques I would have learned in graphic design have changed anyway.

Finding a local course to learn the new techniques, however, proved difficult. I love the idea of going out daily and interacting with people, but in this case it just didn’t turn out to be practical. First, the Accademia discontinued all individual courses, so I got kicked out of the one I had been attending for the past two years and couldn’t sign up for the Photoshop course I was eyeing. The only other local digital art course I could find was expensive, with inconvenient class hours, and it wasn’t really geared to book illustration anyway.  So I found a course–nay several–online. I found an inexpensive Photoshop subscription. And now I’m studying furiously. I just have to remember to schedule exercise, listening to Italian, and going out with friends!

I know that this is a long shot. The publishing industry has completely turned on its head since I went to art school. Also, it can take ten years to learn all the skills needed, and I’m closer to grandma age than college age. It’s quite hard to break into the market, and for all but a few people, it doesn’t pay that well.

But I couldn’t be happier.  I wake up every morning looking forward to working. I’m not particularly concerned with comparing myself with the thousands of extremely skilled illustrators out there, but more with whether I can accomplish something I can be pleased with. And I can teach English when I have to have money.

One more thing: I’m starting to realize how similar children’s book illustration skills are to film direction skills. You have to know a little bit of everything, and I love that. I used to be quite the Luddite where movies were concerned (I think I watched a bit too much film noir in my 20s), and I still love old-fashioned illustration techniques and paper books, but I have come to appreciate the new overlap with animation, graphic novels, and interactive stories as well.

So, hopefully the learning curve will continue, the work will get better, and I’ll find opportunities to share what I’m doing. But for the moment, back to the drawing board. Have a good week!

Learning Italian


When I started this blog, I had in mind compiling some sort of guide to what it’s like to live in a foreign country. That got wiped out pretty much immediately by the effort it took to live here, and also by the sense that Italy doesn’t work that way.  But I haven’t completely given up on the idea.

After three-and-a-half years, something is emerging from the fog. But that knowledge is less like bullet points and more like a frame of mind.

Lesson one for Americans: Living in Italy is not like going to Florence for the summer. You really do have to assimilate culturally, and your language skills can’t stay at, “Un gelato cioccolato, per favore.” Drat.

Having to learn a new language is a big part of what makes living in another country stressful. Italy adds to that stress by having serious problems with organization, bureaucracy, and a long-standing tradition of nepotism, but language is even bigger. That’s because understanding what people around you are saying is a big part of absorbing the cultural expectations and figuring out how things work. You need to be able to pick up way more than you are explicitly taught. This is especially true of “hot cultures,” which are more context-based.

Another aspect of learning a new language upon immigration is that it absorbs enormous amounts of energy, especially when you start learning in middle age. It especially absorbs social energy, and you’re often not fully aware of it until you realize you’ve been holed up in your apartment for two days Facebook messaging people in English because you really, really need to stop thinking about every word you say. But the only way to get over that hump is to go out and start speaking Italian!

My own particular linguistic bête noire in Italian is using the formal and informal “you.” This is partly cultural: At my age, how many people do I have to use the formal Lei with, and when can I use the familiar tu? There are more situations in Italy where formality is appropriate than you’d think, and you don’t want to mess it up because you might look rude. Sarie tells me that her music colleagues (who are often in their 30s and 40s) will tell her, “Dammi il tu.” But this never happens to me, perhaps because I’m no longer at the age where people are just starting to use Lei with me. The confusion is especially bad with neighbors and friends of friends because I often don’t know where I stand. If possible, I hide behind the ambiguous voi (“you” plural, which doesn’t have a formal and informal) until I hear the Italian use the second person singular, then I follow their lead. But sometimes the other person does the same thing! And since the tu verb forms come more naturally, I’ve also been known to start with Lei only to revert to tu the minute I stop thinking about how I’m saying things!

As you might guess, automaticity is also important, because it cuts down on the energy expenditure and helps to reduce social awkwardness. As long as you’re aware what language you’re speaking, you can’t fully focus on the content of the conversation. To really make friends and get things done, you need to be able to plow through heaps of meaning without having to detour around linguistic roadblocks. You need to move on from being a Latka Gravas, because there are some pretty unpleasant cultural limitations that come with being an immigrant mascot. And if you are particularly verbal in your mother tongue, these limitations can leave you feeling like two different people. Not pleasant.


But there is good news. Once you finally get a handle on the basics, learning another language does start to snowball. You don’t have to be taught every little grammar point. Like a child, or like someone who simply moves to a different English speaking region, you start picking up the inflections, mannerisms, slang, strings of common phrases, and connecting phrases that you need to accelerate into automaticity. Energy is released to pursue other things. Sometimes you don’t even realize how you much progress you’re making until you look back.

Recently Sarie and I went to Dusseldorf, Germany for a few days. German has a good many words that are similar to English and which you can recognize when you see them written on signs, but I really can’t follow the flow of it at all. As we changed planes in Zurich on the way home, Italian crept back into the mix of languages I was hearing, and into the look of the people I was traveling with (Italians dress better!). As I boarded my flight to Milan and the woman in the aisle seat let me into my row, I said, “Grazie!” without really thinking about it. Then I saw that she was reading a German magazine, so I wondered if I had misjudged. It wasn’t until well into the flight that she started talking to her husband across the aisle in Italian. The sense of homecoming, of nostalgia, was palpable.

Funny thing, assimilation.

Inductive reasoning and the academy


 Powdered pigments at a local art store

This week was the start of the Accademia Albertina. As usual, the Italian inductive-learning process has collided with my not-quite-infallible Italian language comprehension to produce confusion. But slowly, my faulty model of the Accademia is being replaced by experience, and soon enough I’ll know what I’ve gotten myself into.

I arrived at the Accademia on Monday morning at 9:00 to find a courtyard full of Goth-lite teens chatting and smoking. I noticed a sign with an arrow and the room number for my course, etching, but the number was nowhere in that cul-de-sac of courtyard. Eventually, a school employee told me which entrance to use, and I realized that the numbers outside were only for the room just inside the door. You had to walk through several interior rooms to get to the correct one, which wasn’t listed outside.

Finally inside my classroom, I found three other women, none of whom looked anything like the Goth-lite students outside, and none of whom I had ever seen before.

I did recognize the man who had proctored the exam, though. Turns out he was the printmaking professor. He started talking almost immediately, and kept on talking for an hour-and-a-half. He gave a history of the course at the Accademia from the 19th century. He went through every item on the materials list in great detail, without giving out the list. Then he described some of the printmaking procedures we’d be doing.

All this time, students were coming in and out of the room. Some just poked their heads in the door, looking lost. Occasionally some came in and stayed. One group stayed until the professor asked them what their major was, at which point he told them they had the wrong room. Many of the students were Chinese and seemed to know one another well. At one point, all the Chinese students went up to the desk for some instructions from the professor, and left.

The professor explained that there would be a completely different group of students tomorrow, so he would have to give the same information again. Finally I realized that these students all had different majors, and the coming and going corresponded to the number of hours they needed for their major. Never mind that they many of them didn’t get all the information because the professor had started his talk an hour ago!  Eventually his speech slowed and I realized that we could leave. It was 11:00 am. and I didn’t need to return until Wednesday.

This morning, Wednesday, I went back for the figure drawing course, which was what I originally signed up for. I didn’t take any art supplies with me. I figured that since Monday’s etching class was just a presentation, today’s figure-drawing would be as well. Besides, several people had warned me not to bring my stuff until I knew whether the room was well-secured, because there was a lot of theft.

Once again, there was an entirely different group of people waiting to enter the classroom, none of these whom I had seen before, either. The same professor let us in, and other students dribbled in as well (including some of Monday’s), until eventually a group of about 20 students accumulated, mostly retirees. Most of the retirees seemed to know one another, and there was general round of fond greetings and cheek-kissing, as well as introductions to the five or so of us who were new.

The professor started talking again. He talked for an hour-and-a-half. He started out with how it was okay to use student-grade paint, because we were students, and why buy a top-notch racing bike when you didn’t have the legs for it yet? This morphed into a lecture on the spirit of art, and eventually I recognized that he was touching on the same familiar lecture themes I had heard in my years at the University of Georgia: Copying vs. bringing out something of the soul, technical facility vs. searching, the inner silence required for an appropriate level of concentration, modern painters’ appropriation of various aspects of their classical predecessors’ work, etc.

I noticed that he often used modern Italian artists as examples. I knew who all save one of them were, but other than Morandi and Giacometti, they weren’t names American art students would be likely to know. They also called Mark Rothko “Roch-ko.” But then, Americans call Michelangelo “Michael-angelo.”

Eventually the professor left, and the students who had brought their materials started working with the model. Meanwhile, I had asked when the art history lectures were and was told to check with the secretary’s office. So one of the other new women and I went up to the office to check. We saw two class times posted outside the door, but we knew there should be several more, so we went in to ask.

“We’re closed,” said the woman behind the desk.

“Oh, sorry,” said my friend. “We just wanted to know, what are the times for the other art history classes?”

“You know as much as we do,” was the answer.

So, anyhow, at least I knew that there was an Ancient Art History lecture tomorrow at noon. For art history, I have decided to concentrate on the types of art that I can see fine examples of here in Italy, which is to say, Western art through the Baroque. I’ve already seen a lot of first-rate modern art in the US and other parts of Europe, and I am fairly familiar with non-Western art from the Metropolitan Museum.

When I took the entrance exam for the Accademia in September, I had no idea how much work the course involved or what the hours were. When I arrived for the beginning of classes on Monday, I knew there were three subjects involved (etching, the model, and art history) and thought that the course lasted every morning from 9:00-12:00. I had planned my other fall activities accordingly. Now, two sessions into the actual course, I can see instead that etching lasts from 8:00-2:00 on Monday and Tuesday, and the model sessions last from 9:00-6:00 on the other three weekdays, but those hours really depend on how long the model is there, which seems to be until 3:00. I still don’t know when art history is, aside from Ancient Art.

But the inductive reasoning technique (a dribble of data points which, long after you have made your decision, eventually produce a big picture) is pretty typical of Italian institutions. Thankfully, since I am in a non-traditional course without exams or a diploma, I can really pick and choose what times I want to show up, though I am partial to showing up at times when instruction is given.

At least I’m not like a grad-student friend, who started her master’s in psychology last month but didn’t know which program (of three, with different requirements) she had been admitted to, because the results wouldn’t be posted until the morning classes began. In fact, thirty minutes into the first lecture, the results were posted online, but then then they were immediately taken down and students were told that due to some mistake they wouldn’t know which program they were in until they were three weeks into their classes!

And then there’s Sarie, who re-enrolled at the conservatory in June expecting to switch to Baroque violin only to have them close the program. This week classes have started at the conservatory, but she’s still waiting to hear from a private school about an alternative Baroque violin program.

Perhaps the situation in Italy is best summed up in a sign I saw this morning. It said:

“Tranquilli. Ho tutto fuori controllo.”

“Stay calm. I have everything out of control.”

This should probably be the national motto of Italy. And of artists. Which kind of makes sense.


 A gipsoteca, or plaster cast store, near the Accademia.

Bits, snappy and not-so-snappy

I stood out on my kitchen balcony before 8 a.m. this morning, listening to swallows, which I could see circling above, and traffic, which I couldn’t see circling my block outside the courtyard. I had gone to hang out a towel and been charmed into staying. The sky was utterly clear, and the temperature was cold for late May (48/10 degrees).  I was (and am) wearing a pink wool sweater set as an homage to the two seasons between which the city is choosing.

Then I went inside and made a second caffè macchiato.  The sun is now slanting golden on my fake birch cabinets from IKEA. It looks warm despite the fakery.

I wonder, when I go outside our courtyard and cross C.so Matteotti, will I have a clear view of the mountains?

I’m alone. I am frequently alone now, and I’m coming to terms with it. Last night I sat down and taught myself the first of the Goldberg Variations, which I have loved for years. It’s not performable yet, but I practiced with interest for two hours. I also drew a quick sketch Virgin statuette from the Cloisters--twice, because the first time I botched the structure. The one below has problems as well (as pretty much any 15 minute sketch will), but I’m putting it in as an incentive to make myself practice.

Virgin. Sandstone, polychromy and gilding, France 1247-52, from the cathedral of Strasbourg (47.101.11) Metropolitan Museum, Cloisters.


Yesterday in Italian class I learned the congiuntivo imperfetto and the congiuntivo trapassato.  So now, if I could only remember how to conjugate even the most basic verbs in the present tense on the fly, I would be able to say the most complicated things in Italian–statements of possibility and emotion that occurred and continued in the past. I think you can make poetry with those!

On Tuesday I made a chicken broth (with the feet, of course) and yesterday I made a potato leek soup for Sarie and Alberto with some of it. We talked about film ideas and told viola jokes in two languages. Bob is in Vienna.

I’m continuing to read Psalms every morning, and often I sing traditional hymns. Sometimes I literally sing them in the closet.

I’m reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien again.  Of course I read them for the insight into how he wrote The Lord of the Rings, but what I really like about them is the inclusion of bits of side trivia, such as the following from a letter to his son Christopher:

“When fermentation was first managed, the beer was only in birch tubs and it foamed all over the place, and of course the heroes cam and lapped it up, and got mightily drunk.  Drunk was Ahti, drunk was Kauko, drunken was the ruddy rascal, with the ale of Osmo’s daughter-Kirby’s translation is funnier than the original.  It was the bullfinch who then suggested to Osmo’s daughter the notion of putting the stuff in oak casks with hoops of copper and storing it in a cellar.  Thus was ale at first created…best of rinks for prudent people; Women soon it brings to laughter, Men it warms into good humour, and but brings the fools to raving.  Sound sentiments. Poor old Finns, and their queer language, they look like being scuppered.*”

Italians traditionally don’t drink to drunkenness.  They consider that something that American tourists do, especially college students.  (In case you were wondering what their stereotypes of us were.)  But in this generation, things seem to be changing.  Sarie had to enter some data from an anonymous survey on various consumption habits for a school project.  Only two students whose data she entered had not gotten drunk. Some were as young as 14. My Italian teacher thinks this is an attitude imported from northern Europe. Of course it has been a problem in the US at least since I was a teen.

Some of the lines from Tolkien’s letters, such as the following, stand quite nicely by themselves:

It is a curse having the epic temperament in an overcrowded age devoted to snappy bits!”

Which begs the question: Is this a snappy bit?

*The last line is in reference to the Finns’ tendency to be dominated by other countries.



I let Sarie choose, from among several images, how to represent herself as “not-very-IB.”   This is the one she choose.  I’d say a 19th C. medievalist is pretty spot-on!

Our family has really enjoyed the Easter Break.  Bob is home, Sarie has several days off from school, and while Bob unwinds from his trip, Sarie and I are taking time to do the most un-IB things we can think of.  We’ve been spring shopping, we’re cooking, and I’m reading Tolkien aloud while she knits. She’s also practicing violin a lot and tomorrow she’ll will go work on the movie I mentioned earlier, which is based on local medieval history.  At the moment she’s playing Bob in chess.

Yesterday I read Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle.  If you don’t know the story, it’s about a middling painter who wants to complete one satisfying work of art during his lifetime, a landscape painting featuring a magnificent tree. But he doesn’t always use his time as he should and he’s often interrupted by bureaucratic necessity or piddling requests from others. As a result, his earthly reputation remains obscure to the end. But when Niggle arrives in heaven, he finds that his so-so work has not only been completed as he dreamed of it, but it has been made into a real country that helps others.

As I closed the book, I was thinking of some of Sarie’s frustrations and interruptions this past year: notably missing out on the violin teacher she wanted and having to enroll in the IB program. “Isn’t this a lovely story?” I commented as I closed the book.  “Maybe God has a way of redeeming the IB program, which you’ll only find out about when you arrive in heaven.”

Sarie looked aghast. “Oh, no!  I don’t want to get to heaven and discover that all my internal assessments have been completed!”

We both burst out laughing.  I think we both agree that internal assessments are anything but heavenly.

The IB program is billed as a critical thinking program, because it takes things apart.  What it is is bureaucratic.  It’s bureaucratic in the Swiss sense, that of having a million central procedures.  But apparently here the procedures take on an Italian twist.  Sure, there are standards, but it seems you can only find out what they are by not fulfilling them.

“It’s sort of like that book Epaminondas,” Sarie mused at lunch yesterday. She was referring to a Trina Schart Hyman book we used to read in which a little boy tries to perform various tasks to help his aunt, but since “He hasn’t got the sense he was born with,” he keeps following the instructions from the task before and thus bungling the job at hand.  What’s more, in the IB Sarie is apparently supposed to intuit these instructions. “Once I learn from my mistakes, they’ve moved on to something else that no one will tell me how to do.”

During a parent/teacher conference in February, I saw an example of what she was talking about. The teacher had taken off a letter grade from an otherwise excellent article, written during class in Italian, because Sarie didn’t guess that she was supposed to put her name and the title at the bottom of the paper (her name was at the top). There was another such paper, from January, in which the grade was unusually low. Sarie didn’t remember this grade at all and even the teacher didn’t remember what it was for, so I wanted to see it, but I was told that the paper in question had already been archived.  I requested that it be “un-archived,” since it had cost her yet another letter grade in a subject in which she does relatively well. I still haven’t seen the paper.

Still, Sarie is finding that over time, she understands the IB requirements better, even if they do seem like nonsense.  On a recent biology test, “I put down the same thing twice in slightly different ways, and got both points for the question,” she remarked wryly.

A couple of times a teacher has suggested that Sarie might not have enough of a social life, since she doesn’t hang out with the kids after school.  Little does she know.  But I don’t feel it’s my duty to supply the school with the details of Sarie’s music friendships, so I didn’t enlighten her.  I did say that she’d made a remarkable adjustment to life in Italy.

And then there’s the math teacher.  Every other Thursday, he hands back tests and spends half the class time yelling curses at the class in two languages.  He seems to pick a special victim to provoke, usually a girl.  One, who was admittedly being difficult on purpose, has already left the class. But he banished another student a couple of weeks ago when her behavior was quite reasonable.  That day the teacher was so out-of-control I got a text from Sarie asking me to call the head of the school.  The head was sympathetic and has sat in on the class, but admittedly it’s rather hard for her to catch the teacher mid-rant. Sarie isn’t being picked on personally, but that’s not the point with her. She’s upset at the injustice of the situation and the waste of class time.

Regardless, the reason Sarie was so glad for a break this week was English lit.

Last year she loved Western Lit to Dante with Dr. McMenomy from Scholars Online.  The class read Greeks, Latins, and medieval authors, including, of course, Dante.  Sarie read some of it in medieval Italian.  She had been hoping to eventually take his Senior English course.

This year’s English class seems to be study in how far one can get from Western Lit. When I saw the book list in the fall I gave them (there are only two students in the class) until February to start throwing the books at the wall.  Sarie made it to the end of March, when the teacher showed the movie Blade Runner before Sarie had even gotten past the first chapter of the book version, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  Sarie’s reaction to the movie was visceral enough that she closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to watch it.  I know it’s a critically acclaimed movie.  I saw it years ago myself.  But tastes vary, and Sarie felt trapped.

Sarie says next year the IB program will involve writing lots more papers on the material they’ve covered this year, completing their community service hours, and taking mock and real exams.  She’ll also be trying to prepare for a conservatory audition elsewhere in Europe, if she can find someone to teach her the specifics required for a top-notch audition.

The bright side to all this is that the teachers (most of them) do show concern for Sarie’s well-being and patience with her strong opinions.  I honestly think they mean well.  It’s just that they’re dealing with a bureaucratic system and furthermore they don’t really have a clue how her mind works.  It’s not the best fit for Sarie’s interests, but it’s the only option she has right now and besides, she’s approaching the halfway point.

So for the time being, Sarie leaves for school early and arrives home from conservatory late.  I miss her.  Sometimes I regret how she’s spending her last years at home to such a degree that I stand at the window wondering if we’re missing some obvious way to chuck it and make room for things we think are more important–or at least make room for more music. Homeschool habits die hard. But like Niggle, whose time was eaten by annoyances, in the end I just hope for redemption.  We’re obeying what we know the best way we know how.

Meanwhile, last night after dinner Sarie was at her laptop, happily typing away. She  said was writing a passage about coming home to the smell of flavorful cooking. It wasn’t an IB assignment, of course, but it was very Sarie. My once-reluctant writer now can’t seem to stop reveling in words.

From foreign to familiar


A gathering of young adults from our church, representing in various proportions and length of residency and with some margin for error: Nigeria, Ghana, the US, the UK, Australia, Swedish Finland, Indonesia, Brazil, and both northern and southern Italy.

My pastor’s wife recently lent me a fascinating book about navigating cultural differences, From Foreign to Familiar by Sarah Lanier.  Lanier is a consultant to foreign missionaries who has lived in many different parts of the world. Upon taking the book from the shelf, I immediately flipped it over, scanned the blurb, and exclaimed, “Sarah Lanier.  Well of course she would be from Georgia!  That’s a very Georgian name.” It gave me a funny feeling to immediately sense that familiar context in a foreign country.

As a matter of fact, I had just confirmed myself as a member of what Lanier herself calls a “hot culture.”  Hot cultures tend to have a strong sense of context, maintain a friendlier environment, value relationships over tasks, feel obligated to invite you if they mention an event in public, feel obligated to share food if they eat it in public, talk delicately around problems instead of addressing them directly and accurately, show deference to authority, have a strong sense of what dress and manners are appropriate for a given occasion, have a stronger group identity, and have a more relaxed sense of time.  The Southern US, at least when and where I grew up, was a fairly typical example of a hot culture, with the possible exception of the group identity.  (Southerners tolerate certain types of eccentricity quite readily, as long as the eccentric has good manners.)

I lost a little bit of this strong cultural identity as I grew up and moved on to larger cities within the South during the 70s and 80s.  I learned to tone down my accent and deal with sarcasm, because it was absolutely necessary in order to attend a big, suburban high school along with transplants from Chicago and New Jersey. But I’ve never quite lost these initial Southern habits and preferences, and in fact, often felt a bit flabbergasted in New York City when I’d try to arrange spontaneous get-togethers for other moms and kids. And I never quite got over my need to chat to sales clerks using colorful idioms, even though I knew better.  Even after fifteen years, I always felt a little too warm and sensitive in the context of that highly structured, achievement-oriented culture.  But I learned a different, more direct and efficient way of dealing with people, for sure.

Then we moved to Italy.

Obviously, not everyone in Italy, or even in Piemonte, is the same. Some people are much more formal and have a more developed sense of organization than others.  Some are warmer and kiss-ier than others.  Some are dressier than others, more extroverted than others.  But still, you don’t know where the assumptions lie until you’ve observed for a while.

Remember my initial frustrations with bureaucracy? I’m now convinced that the reason that, for example, it took me five months to enroll Sarie in the conservatory was that I made a couple of initial and egregious mistakes in dealing with Italian bureaucratic culture. And how could I have known better, since I was in (and from) the United States? Italian bureaucracy is a very high context procedure.  You really don’t know what it’s going to take until you’re right in front of the bureaucrat–perhaps for the third time.

Perhaps my principal mistake was trying to obtain a clear-cut enrollment procedure at all, and especially via e-mail.  Even though I didn’t have the option of meeting people in person, I needed it!  For another thing, there is a definite protocol for writing business correspondence in Italy.  By NYC standards, it seems incredibly formal: using the titles dott. and dott.ssa for just about everyone, using “illustrious” in the greeting, adding lots of flowery adjectives, and ending in “Porgo i miei più distinti saluti,” which the literal translation of “I send my most distinguished greetings,” just doesn’t seem to convey properly.  And furthermore, no one does anything until the last minute.  So no wonder I wasn’t getting anywhere!

But of course, I had no way of knowing this, and to this day don’t really know what the proper solution would have been.  The actual procedure not only required a passable knowledge of the Italian language and bureaucratic conventions, but also of Italian commercial procedures, such as filling out a postal check and having the proper identity information (which isn’t even used in the US). And furthermore, the same procedure that finally worked for us may not have worked for the next person. Sarie is still, to my knowledge, the first full-blooded American to have enrolled in the Torino conservatory.

But bureaucracy was only the initial and most aggravating problem.  I realized after some time here that I would require a different sort of wardrobe, a different sense of time and hospitality, and that I was likely offending people regularly by not following the proper greeting procedures when I entered stores. I’m slowly learning how to do these things, but I’m pretty sure I still step on toes.  Now I try to ask: Do I need to bring something to dinner?  Do I need to pay for that gift, or will that offend the giver?  And I understand, for instance, that even the most professional businesspeople will likely not return my e-mail until they have an answer, even if it takes weeks. Or plan any event more than a few days in advance.

I personally find the Piemontese to be about right on the hot/cold culture spectrum. They have a reputation in Italy for being cold and reserved, but aside from a few apathetic bureaucrats, I usually find them to be not unlike myself, at least in their comfort with emotion.  As I’ve learned how to address them, I find that they can be almost conspiratorially friendly. The nicer manners, the sense of proper dress, the family connections, the indirect way of getting information, respect of elders, and the greetings in stores, all remind me of the culture of the Southern US. But a culture as group-oriented as Naples or Sicily might have overwhelmed me completely.  So, I feel like I’ve landed in the right part of Italy.

I may list more of these “foreign to familiar” differences as I run into them. I certainly don’t have a handle on them yet, but I’m starting to get a little more comfortable, at least. And at our international, English-speaking church we have plenty of Africans and Filipinos, and smaller numbers from many other cultures, who provide yet other perspectives and greater variety along the hot and cold culture spectrum.  Interesting!

John Cleese on creativity

I don’t usually just post a video, but I came across this one this morning while looking for something else, and it’s excellent.

A few years ago, I lead (or tried to lead) a series talks on homeschooling with a largish group. I wanted to emphasize creativity, and it never quite took. But this video is just the kind of thing I liked to show and tell about the most.

In a nutshell, for creativity, you need:

1. Space
2. Time
3. Time
4. Confidence
5. Humor

Sample nugget:

“The people I find it most difficult to be creative with are those who need all the time to create an image of themselves as decisive…And if, while you’re pondering, someone accuses you of indecision, say, ‘Look, Babycakes! I don’t have to decide ’til Tuesday.'”

But listen to the whole thing, because it’s John Cleese, and he would know!

Meanwhile, I’m off deciding what to do next.  I’ll get back with you next Tuesday.